5 Data Points to Attract and Retain Exhibitors and Attendees

At ECEF last month, Sam Lippman culled five main insights from recent Freeman research that should be top of mind for event organizers.

Author: Michelle Russell       

man speaking on ECEF branded stage

Sam Lippman of Lippman Connects presented his annual “5 Points in 5 Minutes” at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF) in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Lippman Connects)

A hallmark of the annual one-day Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), produced by Lippman Connects, is that it runs like a finely tuned Swiss watch. Sessions start on time and they do not run over. That spirit of respecting the schedule — and participants’ time — is introduced when Sam Lippman takes the stage to kick off the event. For the past eight years, Lippman has started each ECEF with his succinct “5 Points in 5 Minutes” and embeds the countdown timer in his presentation to keep him on his toes.

At the 23rd edition of ECEF, held May 29 in Washington, D.C., Lippman’s five key takeaways were drawn from Freeman research — the “2024 Freeman Syndicated Survey of Event Attendees” and the “Freeman 2023 Exhibitor Trends Report” — and shared with the audience of 269 exhibition and convention industry leaders, Convene among them.

Lippman started the countdown clock with “great news” — attendees trust in-person events more than anything else, and their trust in events has grown 5 percent since 2023. Considering how deep fakes and AI hallucinations are on the rise, it makes sense why meeting in person is being seen as a more trustworthy channel for knowledge exchange. He encouraged audience members to “build on this significant competitive advantage.”

At-Risk Exhibitors

That said, the events industry faces challenges. Point No. 1, Lippman said, is at-risk exhibitors. When asked if they are adding meeting rooms to their exhibit, 13 percent of exhibitors surveyed by Freeman said “yes” — which comes as no surprise and isn’t “a big deal,” Lippman said. What is concerning is that 86 percent of large exhibitors said they are adding meeting rooms. These large exhibitors see the value in taking attendees off the exhibit floor to their private meeting room, Lippman said, and their next step may be taking these attendees away from the industry show to their own, standalone, corporate event. Since last year, one or more out of 10 large exhibitors are considering, planning, or doing just that.

This is not a new challenge, Lippman said, and referred the 2008 ECEF keynote speaker, Greg Reid, YRC Worldwide’s CMO, who presented a case study on why a $10-billion Fortune 500 company reduced its exhibition participation by 45 percent while channeling its trade-show budget into launching its own corporate event.

“Let’s listen to what our anchors need,” he advised, “so they don’t leave our show.”

Exhibitor Packages

Point No. 2 is directly related to that issue. Another reason why companies leave trade shows is because exhibiting is hard, complicated, and frustrating, Lippman said. Exhibitors are asking organizers to offer packages, simplify logistics, and streamline contractor information. “As an industry,” he said, “we need to respond to these requests.”

Connecting in Advance

Point No. 3 came as no surprise to Lippman. “We know exhibitors want to connect with attendees in advance,” he said. “What surprised me was that 68 percent of attendees also want to connect in advance — they want to schedule meetings with other attendees and exhibitors before they arrive on site.”

Exhibitors know that scheduling meetings with their clients and prospects before the show will increase their return on investment/return on objectives, “so, let’s increase our customers’ productivity by providing them the tools they need,” he said, “to pre-arrange these meetings.”

sign says Attraction & Retention

Event organizers are offering features that actually don’t matter much to many attendees, according to the fourth of Sam Lippman’s five points.

Retaining Attendees

Point No. 4 addresses attendees rather than exhibitors. Freeman’s quantitative research reveals that event organizers are offering features that actually don’t matter much to attendees — including wellness activations, gamification, and quality F&B. While these elements may enhance their overall experience, they aren’t strong enough incentives to get them to register. What does move the needle for potential attendees is receiving customized agendas from organizers in advance of events.

Moreover, the research shows that celebrity and inspirational keynotes are not what attendees seek — they want industry experts speaking on innovation.

Event Objectives

Lippman’s fifth and most important point: Previous research revealed that generation, gender, and socioeconomic status drove more than 90 percent of the trends of attendees and exhibitors in terms of what attracted them to events. “And even though we all think our show is different, our industry is different — while they are important — they are not the primary drivers”.

In Freeman’s latest research, when exhibitors and attendees were asked what attracted them to events, accomplishing their event objective moved to the top of the list over what was previously thought to be the main drivers. The question for organizers is to determine what are those objectives.

“This is excellent news,” Lippman said. “We already know in general why attendees and exhibitors participate in our shows: They come to learn, network, have fun, and do business. Now let’s take the next step.”

Before your next show, he suggested, ask as many of your customers as possible to share their event objectives. When you help them achieve their objectives, everyone benefits, he said.

Lippman cited a case study that backs that up: The 20,000-attendee Esri User Conference, billed as the world’s largest GIS (geographic information systems) conference. Esri asked attendees to share their objectives, and based on those objectives, organized them into six different cohorts. They then asked attendees if they wanted a customized agenda — those that said “yes” had a 34-percent higher NPS (net promoter score).

“Let’s emulate this event,” Lippman concluded, “and increase the value of our exhibitions and conventions by learning what our customers want and delivering it.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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